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Six Recommendations

1. The Temporary Bride: A Memoir of Love and Food in Iran by Jennifer Klinec

During her 30s, Klinec decided to abandon her corporate job in order to pursue a career in the culinary arts, launching a cooking school from her London kitchen. This led her to travel to Iran, to learn how to cook traditional food in a Persian home. Vahid, the son of the woman she has been invited to stay with, seems prickly and standoffish at first, but they soon fall in love with one another. What ensues is much fascinating commentary on the melding of two very different cultures and customs, and I found it highly insightful.

2. The Diddakoi by Rumer Godden
This is rather an old-fashioned books in some respects, telling the story of a young ‘diddakoi’, or half gypsy girl. I have read quite a few of Godden’s books in the past, and plan to revisit them all at some point. It was lovely to be able to pick up something ‘new’, even though my library reservation came with rather a garish 1970s front cover. The Diddakoi is well plotted, and incredibly heartwarming.

3. The Nazis Knew My Name by Magda Hellinger and Maya Lee
I had not heard of Magda Hellinger’s story before spotting a copy in the library. Written by her daughter, Maya Lee, The Nazis Knew My Name tells the true story of an incredibly brave woman, who put herself in danger to help others around her when she was forcibly taken to various concentration camps during the Holocaust. It is a privilege to read Holocaust memoirs, and I found Hellinger’s memories incredibly moving.

4. Why We Swim by Bonnie Tsui
I am seemingly obsessed with swimming; I love to watch it at championships and Olympics when I get the chance, I love to swim myself, and I have already reviewed a couple of swimming-focused books in the past. I really admired the structure which Tsui adopts here, in a book which melds together history and memoir. Why We Swim is fascinating, readable, and I felt as though I learnt a great deal.

5. The Light of the World by Elizabeth Alexander
The Light of the World is a memoir centered around the sudden death of Alexander’s husband, Ficre Ghebreyesus. She is left with two young boys, not knowing how to go on without him, or whether to abandon any of the plans the pair made. Here, Alexander captures the essence of their loving relationship, from their early days, to their marriage of fifteen years, and the enormous task of trying to pick herself back up after his death. As The Light of the World has been penned by a poet, one should not be surprised that the prose is beautiful, and incredibly moving.

Assembly by Natasha Brown
At just over 100 pages long, one might be forgiven for thinking that Natasha Brown’s debut novella, Assembly, does not tackle much. Focusing on a young, Black, female protagonist working a high-level London job in the finance industry after graduating from a top University, Assembly explores so many issues around identity, the inner self, race, societal expectations, and trying to cope with living in our frantic world. I loved the structure, which is made up of many vignettes, and enjoyed Brown’s sharp descriptions. There is a real depth and intensity to Assembly. It is exciting modern fiction, and I very much look forward to what Brown writes in future.

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‘Wave’ by Sonali Deraniyagala ****

I’m sure that everyone remembers where they where when they first saw the terrifying footage of the tsunami which originated from an earthquake deep in the Indian Ocean, and struck several Asian countries on Boxing Day, 2004. Around 230,000 people are thought to have been killed as a result, and destruction was wreaked upon so many countries and communities. I chose to read a memoir which about the tragedy which is far more personal – Wave by Sri Lankan author Sonali Deraniyagala.

Deraniyagala had returned from her home in north London, to the coast of Sri Lanka, to visit her parents and siblings. She was staying at an upmarket resort next to a national park in Yala, with her husband, Steve, and two young sons, seven-year-old Vikram, and five-year-old Malli. Her parents were occupying the next bungalow, and her best friend was also staying at the resort with her own parents. This was supposed to be a restful end to their holiday, after spending some time in Colombo, where she grew up.

Deraniyagala’s narrative opens on the morning of the tsunami. She reflects: ‘I thought nothing of it at first. The ocean looked a little closer to our hotel than usual. That was all.’ She goes on: ‘The foam turned into waves. Waves leaping over the ridge where the beach ended. This was not normal. The sea never came this far in. Waves not receding or dissolving. Closer now. Brown and gray. Brown or gray. Waves rushing past the conifers and coming closer to our room. All these waves now, charging, churning. Suddenly furious.’

What follows is heartbreaking. She gathers her husband and sons, and they manage to find escape in a Jeep owned by the hotel. Her parents are left behind in their room. The Jeep becomes quickly engulfed in water and overturns, and all are swept away. Deraniyagala recalls: ‘Then I saw Steve’s face. I’d never seen him like that before. A sudden look of terror, eyes wide open, mouth agape. He saw something behind me that I couldn’t see.’ She loses sight of her family immediately, and is rescued by some brave locals. There is no sign of her loved ones.

The author is honest about how scared she was feeling on that first night, and all of the uncertainties which existed around her: ‘In a few hours it will be light. It will be tomorrow. I don’t want it to be tomorrow. I was terrified that tomorrow the truth would start.’ She is taken to stay with her cousin, and her extended family. At this point, she tells us: ‘They couldn’t have survived, I heard myself insist. I was prodding myself to say this, to think this. I must prepare for when I know it’s true, I thought.’ Later, she says: ‘In a stupor I began to teach myself the impossible. I had to learn it even by rote. We will not fly back to London. The boys will not be at school on Tuesday. Steve will not call me from work to ask if I took them in on time. Vik will not play tag outside his classroom again. Malli will not skip in a circle with some little girls… They will not peep into the oven to check if my apple crumble has cooked. My chant went on.’

It takes a lot of time to recover the bodies of her family. In this time, Deraniyagala is distraught. She tells those around her that she cannot live without her family, and that it will be only a matter of time before she takes her own life. She begins to turn to alcohol, and withdraws from life. She tells herself: ‘I must stop remembering. I must keep them in a faraway place. The more I remember, the greater my agony. These thoughts stuttered in my mind. So I stopped talking about them, I wouldn’t mouth my boys’ names, I shoved away stories of them. Let them, let our life, become as unreal as that wave.’

Wave is an incredibly powerful record, filled with vivid and visceral descriptions. Deraniyagala does not hide her pain; rather, she writes about it in raw, short sentences. Some oddly beautiful moments are captured, which seem quite at odds with what she is forced through. When she is swept away, for instance, she records: ‘I was floating on my back. A blue spotless sky. A flock of storks was flying above me, in formation, necks stretched out. These birds were flying in the same direction that the water was taking me. Painted storks, I thought. A flight of painted storks across a Yala sky, I’d seen this thousands of times. A sight so familiar, it took me out of the mad water.’

Deraniyagala lays her grief bare on every page. In painfully recounted scenes, she visits her childhood home, now completely empty after her parents’ death. She recalls the rage which she felt when the house was sold, and was occupied by another family, whom she spent a great deal of time terrorising. She also goes back to Yala, to the hotel in which everything changed. What she finds is completely destroyed: ‘There were no walls standing, it was as though they’d been sliced off the floors. Only those clay-tiled floors remained, large footprints of rooms, thin corridors stretching out in all directions.’ Whilst here, she finds her son’s t-shirt, in a scene which is particularly heartrending to read.

Deraniyagala is very honest about the myriad difficulties which she faced after the tragedy, as well as her strong, and often impulsive, reactions. Throughout, she grapples with the impossibility of never seeing her family again. She writes, in retrospect: ‘For three years I’ve tried to indelibly imprint they are dead on my consciousness, afraid of slipping up and forgetting, of thinking they are alive.’ Many things unmoor her, from going back to her London family home for the first time, almost four years later, to revisiting a bar which she and her husband used to frequent. She writes: ‘… I am relieved to reenter the warmth of our life, even though I know that reality will get me, later.’

Wave is a touching and beautiful memorial to a lost family. Deraniyagala writes with such truth, and such courage. She is open about the guilt and bewilderment she feels at surviving. Wave is not an easy read by any means, but it is an important one, and I would recommend it to everyone.

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‘Sixpence House: Lost in a Town of Books’ by Paul Collins ***

I cannot help it; I am drawn, time after time, to books about books. I have been a bibliophile for as long as I can remember, and love to read about other people’s adventures within the world of books. It will come as no surprise, then, that Paul Collins’ Sixpence House: Lost in a Town of Books – a memoir of moving his family to the Welsh book town of Hay-on-Wye – was high on my to-read list.

I found it a lovely touch that every review adorning the hardback edition of Sixpence House was written by a bookseller. They say, variously, that this book includes ‘remarkable wit’, is ‘viscerally funny and intellectually engaging’, and is ‘an astonishingly entertaining book that touches on everything to do with books.’

In 2003, Collins and his family left their house in San Francisco to move to the ‘town of books’ in Wales, a place to which they had made ‘yearly pilgrimages’ beforehand. The small market town of Hay-on-Wye boasted just 1,500 inhabitants – ‘a large population of misfits and bibliomaniacs’ – but an astonishing 40 antiquarian bookshops. Collins, along with his partner Jennifer and young son, moved into a sixteenth-century apartment above a rambling bookshop.

After a few weeks, he begins to work for Richard Booth, the ‘self-declared King of Hay’, and the owner of the world’s largest ‘and most chaotic used-book warren’. Collins is tasked with the impossibility of organising the American fiction section in the bookshop, which he describes as ‘a rambling monstrosity of half-opened shipping boxes, bindings ripped to shreds, of unguarded treasures left tossed in spiderwebbed corners. There are something like half a million books in this building – but nobody’s really counting any more.’ At this point in time, Collins is awaiting the publication of his first book in the United States.

Sixpence House is rather a quirky book, complete with a set of incredibly precise chapter headings. These range from ‘Skips a Tiring Train Journey and Alights in the Welsh Countryside’, to the final chapter, entitled ‘Ends with a Subtle Hint of Further Mishaps in the Future’. The whole is relatively entertaining, and I appreciated all of the anecdotes of bookselling which he provides. Extracts from the more obscure antiquarian books which Collins finds have been placed throughout too.

Collins’ humour throughout is dry and sarcastic, and sometimes a little deprecating and derogatory – particularly on the subject of the British. He is rather scathing of the people around him; he writes, for instance, ‘… Britain is a realm of nice stammering fellows: Hugh Grant has immortalized them for all posterity’. He reverts to stereotyping Brits a lot – their love of tea drinking, and a supposed penchant for incredibly dated kitchens ‘distinctly of 1950s vintage; you half expect an Angry Young Man with a Yorkshire accent to step out and start yelling about working down in the bloody mines‘. I’m not sure why. Comments of this ilk continue throughout the book, and do make it feel rather dated.

Those who enjoy Shaun Bythell’s memoirs on bookselling in the designated Scottish book town, Wigtown, are sure to enjoy Sixpence House. Both authors have a similiar pessimism about them, and aren’t shy with how they refer to the people who provide them with a living.

The Sixpence House of the book’s title is a tumbledown pub in the centre of town which Collins attempts to buy. After many setbacks, the family decide that sadly, it just isn’t worth it, and they end up moving back to the United States. Still, what Hay offered them was an adventure, into a town which has, quite literally, built itself around the book trade.

I would certainly be interested to see how much the Hay of today differs from what Collins depicts; after all, almost twenty years have passed since Sixpence House‘s publication. I have still not visited Hay, which seems a little shameful for a bookworm to admit. Fingers crossed I’ll get there one day – hopefully with an empty suitcase in tow to fill with treasures.

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Ten More Great Books

Today, I have gathered together ten books which I read quite some time ago, but which I rarely see written or spoken about. The books here are a mixture of fiction and non-fiction from different periods. I wanted to bring a little more attention to these quite excellent tomes, and really hope that you find something which takes your fancy.

1. Basil and Josephine by F. Scott Fitzgerald

‘Basil and Josephine charts the coming of age of two privileged youths from quiet Midwestern towns, Basil Duke Lee and Josephine Perry – based on Fitzgerald himself and a combination of his first love Ginevra King and his wife Zelda. As one struggles to gain the acceptance of his peers and becomes consumed by ambition, the other finds herself obsessed by teenage crushes and has to confront the pitfalls of popularity.

Written for the Saturday Evening Post while the author was working on Tender Is the Night, these stories form a realistic and entertaining portrait of two young adults in the 1910s, fascinating both for the autobiographical insights they provide and the timeless satire that Fitzgerald’s fiction has become synonymous with.’

2. Mad, Bad and Sad: A History of Women and the Mind Doctors from 1800 by Lisa Appignanesi

‘Mad, bad and sad. From the depression suffered by Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath to the mental anguish and addictions of iconic beauties Zelda Fitzgerald and Marilyn Monroe. From Freud and Jung and the radical breakthroughs of psychoanalysis to Lacan’s construction of a modern movement and the new women-centred therapies. This is the story of how we have understood mental disorders and extreme states of mind in women over the last two hundred years and how we conceive of them today, when more and more of our inner life and emotions have become a matter for medics and therapists.’

3. Dinosaurs on Other Planets by Danielle McLaughlin

‘A woman battles bluebottles as she plots an ill-judged encounter with a stranger; a young husband commutes a treacherous route to his job in the city, fearful for the wife and small daughter he has left behind; a mother struggles to understand her nine-year-old son’s obsession with dead birds and the apocalypse. In Danielle McLaughlin’s stories, the world is both beautiful and alien. Men and women negotiate their surroundings as a tourist might navigate a distant country: watchfully, with a mixture of wonder and apprehension. Here are characters living lives in translation, ever at the mercy of distortions and misunderstandings, striving to make sense both of the spaces they inhabit and of the people they share them with.’

4. Rain: Four Walks in English Weather by Melissa Harrison

I chose Melissa Harrison’s Rain: Four Walks in English Weather to read during my final Dewey’s 24-Hour Readathon. It is truly lovely; within its pages, Harrison takes four countryside walks around various parts of England, and in different seasons. Her writing is lovely, and she makes the most of discussing the ways in which rain affects particular landscapes, and how the animals which live within them have adapted – or not, as the case may be. Rain is geographically, geologically, historically, and biologically interesting, and provides several nods to works of literature throughout. Charming, thought-provoking, and lovely, particularly when one considers it in tandem with its glossary, which provides one hundred words for different kinds of rain around the United Kingdom.

5. The High Places: Stories by Fiona McFarlane

What a terrible thing at a time like this: to own a house, and the trees around it. Janet sat rigid in her seat. The plane lifted from the city and her house fell away, consumed by the other houses. Janet worried about her own particular garden and her emptied refrigerator and her lamps that had been timed to come on at six.

So begins “Mycenae,” a story in The High Places, Fiona McFarlane’s first story collection. Her stories skip across continents, eras, and genres to chart the borderlands of emotional life. In “Mycenae,” she describes a middle-aged couple’s disastrous vacation with old friends. In “Good News for Modern Man,” a scientist lives on a small island with only a colossal squid and the ghost of Charles Darwin for company. And in the title story, an Australian farmer turns to Old Testament methods to relieve a fatal drought. Each story explores what Flannery O’Connor called “mystery and manners.” The collection dissects the feelings–longing, contempt, love, fear–that animate our existence and hints at a reality beyond the smallness of our lives.

Salon‘s Laura Miller called McFarlane’s The Night Guest “a novel of uncanny emotional penetration . . . How could anyone so young portray so persuasively what it feels like to look back on a lot more life than you can see in front of you?” The High Places is further evidence of McFarlane’s preternatural talent, a debut collection that reads like the selected works of a literary great.’

6. A Little Love, A Little Learning by Nina Bawden

‘It is 1953 and Joanna, Kate and Poll, who are eighteen, twelve and six, are living in a riverside suburb of London with their mother Ellen and their stepfather Boyd, the local doctor. Then the past arrives to upset the present in the person of Aunt Hat, a gossipy old friend whose husband has been imprisoned for assulting her, and who seems to bring news from a different world of chaos and drama. The real danger, however, comes not from Aunt Hat’s indiscretions but from the girls themselves.’

7. Portrait of a Family by Richmal Crompton

‘Happily married for thirty years with three children that have long since grown up, Christopher Mainwaring finds himself at a total loss following the death of his beloved wife, Susan. Yet the joyful marriage he remembers may not have been all it seemed, for no one in the family knows of the troubling words his wife uttered to him from her death bed . . .

Alluding to a possible affair that took place many years ago with a close family friend, the grieving widower is haunted by visions of Susan’s infidelity and seeks to find out the truth. In his quest to unearth his wife’s potential duplicity, Christopher finds himself looking to his children’s complex lives for answers: Joy who is now married with children and concerns of her own, the professionally inept but kind-hearted Frank and his neurotic wife Rachel, and Derek, whose delusions of grandeur with his struggling business causes much distress for his long-suffering wife, Olivia.

Portrait of a Family by Richmal Crompton provides universal reflections and intimate insights into the dynamics of family life with a startling clarity that will stay with the reader long after the final page has been turned.’

8. Heating and Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs by Beth Ann Fennelly

‘The 52 micro-memoirs in the genre-defying Heating & Cooling offer bright glimpses into a richly lived life. They build on one another to arrive at a portrait of Beth Ann Fennelly as a wife, mother, writer, and deeply original observer of life’s challenges and joys. Some pieces are wistful, some poignant, and many of them reveal the humor buried below the surface of everyday interactions. Heating & Cooling shapes a life from unexpectedly illuminating moments, and awakens us to these moments as they appear in the margins of our lives.’

I had not heard of Beth Ann Fennelly’s Heating and Cooling before, but stumbled across it on my online library catalogue and borrowed it immediately. I love fragmented memoirs, and this is a particularly interesting one. Through each of these ‘micro-memoirs’, Fennelly reveals herself little by little. The entries are amusing, and sometimes quite touching; Fennelly’s approach is fresh and enjoyable. There is such depth and consideration to the writing, and I will definitely be looking out for Fennelly’s books in future.

9. Undying: A Love Story by Michel Faber

‘In Undying Michel Faber honours the memory of his wife, who died after a six-year battle with cancer. Bright, tragic, candid and true, these poems are an exceptional chronicle of what it means to find the love of your life. And what it is like to have to say goodbye.

All I can do, in what remains of my brief time,
is mention, to whoever cares to listen,
that a woman once existed, who was kind
and beautiful and brave, and I will not forget
how the world was altered, beyond recognition,
when we met.

10. The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil by Stephen Collins

‘On the buttoned-down island of Here, all is well. By which we mean: orderly, neat, contained and, moreover, beardless.

Or at least it is until one famous day, when Dave, bald but for a single hair, finds himself assailed by a terrifying, unstoppable… monster*!

Where did it come from? How should the islanders deal with it? And what, most importantly, are they going to do with Dave?

The first book from a new leading light of UK comics, The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil is an off-beat fable worthy of Roald Dahl. It is about life, death and the meaning of beards.

(*We mean a gigantic beard, basically.)’

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‘Bohemian Lives: Three Extraordinary Women’ by Amy Licence ****

Amy Licence describes herself as an ‘historian of women’s lives’, and has written about individuals from a wide span of periods, from the late fifteenth to the early nineteenth century. The Three Extraordinary Women at the heart of Licence’s 2017 biography, Bohemian Lives, are Ida Nettleship, Sophie Brzeska, and Fernande Olivier. This book marks her second foray into the early twentieth century, and follows a title which I have been coveting since its 2015 publication – Living in Squares, Loving in Triangles: The Lives and Loves of Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group.

I am always keen to read about women, particularly those who subverted convention, as each of the subjects here did to some degree. I am fascinated by the period in which these women lived and loved, a world of drastic change where, as Licence writes, ‘individual rights and personal freedoms were being redefined, where women like them were seeking new ways of arranging their private and professional lives, questioning the traditional roles of dependence and maternity.’ Interestingly, the women whom Licence has chosen to focus on all moved in similar circles, and called Paris their home during the same period, but there is no evidence that they ever met one another.

In Bohemian Lives, Licence has set out to follow ‘the achievements and sacrifices of the three women and how their lives overlapped and contrasted, in education, childbirth, illness, marriage – and psychological disintegration.’ Each of the women acted as a great influence upon their artist partners and so, says Licence, ‘challenged the accepted model of male-female relations of the time.’

At the outset, Licence sets out what she believes Bohemianism consisted of; it was, she writes, ‘a philosophy of opposition’, and its ‘essential component was its cultural “otherness”‘. Each of the three women profiled in Bohemian Lives ‘chose some aspects of bohemian living but not others. In rejecting traditional marriage, they suffered jealousy and censure, in rejecting material wealth they struggled to keep themselves fed and clothed. They were by no means the only notable bohemians of their era; they belonged to a whole legion of women pursuing art and love on a mixed journey of dazzling highs and crippling lows.’

Ida Nettleship is an individual whom I have long wanted to learn more about; she married licentious artist Augustus John, who is said to have fathered up to 100 children (!). In marrying John, and bearing five children in just six years, Ida gave up her own promising artistic career. She also became part of a menage á trois, when John insisted on moving his mistress into the family home. Ida sadly died following childbirth in 1907, when she was just thirty years old. Unlike the other women here, Ida’s childhood was a relatively prosperous one; she was brought up in London, into a learned family, and her parents encouraged her ambition to become an artist.

Fernande Olivier was the first love of Pablo Picasso. Born illegitimately as Amélie Lang, she was unwanted by her mother, and went to live with her aunt and uncle. After they attempted to arrange an unwanted marriage for her, Amélie ran away, and attached herself to a violent man, marrying when she was just nineteen. After escaping his clutches, she changed her name to Fernande Olivier to hide from him, and began to move in the artistic circles of Paris. Her relationship with Picasso, which began in 1904, lasted for seven years, and was categorised as highly tempestuous. She sat as a model for him on several occasions.

Sophie Brzeska, born in the Polish city of Krakow, was a writer who lived with the French artist Henri Gaudier, who was known as Henri Gaudier-Brzeska. The pair met in Paris, where Sophie, the only daughter in a family of boys which had fallen on hard times, moved to work as a governess. Sadly, Henri was killed in the trenches during the First World War, at the age of just twenty-three. Sophie, almost twenty years his senior, began a ‘slow descent into mental instability’ after his death, and remained in an asylum until her death in 1925.

Bohemian Lives is undoubtedly fascinating, and it has given me a relatively good understanding of three women whom I knew comparatively little about beforehand. I did, however, have a few niggles with the book, particularly the way in which Licence relies so heavily upon conjecture. This is particularly true with regard to Sophie’s life, of which very little fact has been recorded. The first chapter, which focuses upon Sophie as a young girl, is composed of anecdotes which she told to others, and a narrative which she fashioned herself. When Sophie moves to the United States to work as governess to a family, Licence makes a lot of guesses as to which family she might have worked for, but has no concrete evidence. In this manner, Sophie’s biography sadly feels a little vague, and I do not feel as though I knew much more about her when I had finished reading. It must be tricky to craft a biography around an individual whose life was largely obscured, and who left few facts behind them, but I have seen it done a little more successfully in other work.

There is also perhaps a little too much emphasis upon the situations in which the three women could have met one another. I did not feel that this was quite necessary. I do feel as though more attention to the chronological timeline would have made a more successful, and easier to follow, narrative; as it is, each chapter largely follows one different woman, and we therefore jump around a little in time.

There is a great attention to detail in Licence’s work, and I admire the way in which she has focused on little-known women, who have fallen to the wayside of history. Bohemian Lives has been meticulously researched, and there is an excellent attention to detail where the facts exist. Licence excels at setting the scene, and I am looking forward to picking up some of her other books in the near future. I just hope that there is a little less guessing involved in the lives of her subjects.

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‘Tiny Moons: A Year of Eating in Shanghai’ by Nina Mingya Powles *****

I adored Nina Mingya Powles’ first full-length work of memoir, Bodies of Water, when I read it in the summer of 2021. Afterwards I was, of course, very keen to read her small, and previously published book, Tiny Moons: A Year of Eating in Shanghai, and my library very kindly purchased a copy on my behalf. Published by The Emma Press, the physical book is a vibrant thing of beauty, and features several illustrations by Emma Dai’an Wright, The Emma Press’ founder.

Tiny Moons is a ‘collection of essays about food and belonging’, and it encompasses many of the expanded themes which can be found in Bodies of Water. Here, Powles moves between China, Malaysia, and New Zealand, all three countries in which she grew up. On this journey, she was particularly interested in tracing ‘the constants in her life: eating and cooking, and the dishes that have come to define her’, in order to try and ‘find a way back towards her Chinese-Malaysian heritage.’

In Tiny Moons, Powles has focused on the city of Shanghai, as the title reveals. She moved there from New Zealand with her parents when she was twelve, and attended an international school on the outskirts of the city. In her early adulthood, she returns to take up a Chinese government scholarship to study Mandarin for a year. Here, as she reacquaints herself with a city which has changed so much, food becomes a real comfort. It allows her to ward off homesickness and loneliness, however briefly: ‘I order my noodles and eat them in peace and, for a little while, I feel less like an outsider.’

Powles reveals throughout how removed she has often felt from the Chinese part of her culture. In her introduction to the volume, entitled ‘Hungry Girls’, Powles writes: ‘But there came a time, when I was about five, when I started to hate my weekend Chinese classes… None of the other kids looked like me. None of their dads looked like mine. The languages and dialects they spoke with their parents sounded familiar to me, and I recognised a few words, but I wasn’t able to join in… Eventually my mother stopped using Chinese at home, so maybe I just stopped listening. Words vanished, along with the sounds.’ She goes on to demonstrate that preparing food and eating gave her part of this connection back: ‘I starved myself of language, but I couldn’t starve myself of other things. Wonton noodle soup, Cantonese roast duck, my mother’s crispy egg noodles and her special congee.’

Powles also explores her place within the world, and the wider context of what it means to be a woman. She writes: ‘It is tiring to be a woman who loves to eat in a society where hunger is something not to be satisfied but controlled. Where a long history of female hunger is associated with shame and madness… To enjoy food as a young woman, to opt out every day from the guilt expected of me, in a radical act, of love.’ Bound up with this is the way in which food, and the act of eating, makes her feel. In a dumpling shop in Shanghai, she tells us: ‘I take a bite and my worries melt away. I’m here and also far away from home, in one bite.’

I really admire the way in which Powles speaks about her own identity. She writes: ‘Sometimes I feel like I have no right to claim any part of my Asian-ness, given that I mostly look and sound white. Living and travelling through Asia as a half-Asian woman means moving between different versions of myself: Western tourist, foreign student, writer, language learner, a person trying to understand more about her heritage. I now know there are many different ways of travelling through the world. Some of us are more prone than others to leaving bits of ourselves behind.’

Tiny Moons has been split into five sections – ‘Winter’, ‘Spring’, ‘Summer’, ‘Autumn’, and ‘Winter Again’. Each separate, short piece within each chapter is titled with the name of a specific food item, from ‘Pineapple Buns’, to ‘Chinese Aubergines’. The structure works incredibly well, and I appreciated the glossary which has been included, allowing one to compare the Chinese characters and Chinese and Mandarin translations of particular foods.

I had a feeling that I would love Tiny Moons, and I did. It encompasses just 86 pages, but each reveals so much, and has a great deal to share. Despite its brevity, Tiny Moons goes rather deeper than merely a ‘food diary’, as it is called on the back cover; it is rich, and culturally fascinating. Powles is an excellent writer, and I was struck throughout by the sensuality and opulence of her highly evocative prose. So much of her writing here resonated with me, and this is a volume which I will definitely be purchasing in future, and treasuring each time I reread it. Tiny Moons is a tiny work of art, one to really savour.

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One From the Archive: ‘A Fifty-Year Silence: Love, War and a Ruined House in France’ by Miranda Richmond Mouillot ****

First published in February 2015.

A Fifty-Year Silence: Love, War and a Ruined House in France has been hailed both ‘a rich and evocative portrait of Mouillot’s family spanning three generations’, and ‘a heartbreaking, uplifting love story spanning two continents’.  In her debut work, Mouillot ‘seeks to confront and illuminate a shadow that haunts every family: the past, which is at once sharply present and maddeningly vague’.

9780804140669A Fifty-Year Silence presents an ‘honest account’ of her grandparents’ separation, and the consequent problems which their offspring and only grandchild, Miranda, were caused.  Anna and Armand purchased an old stone house in the south of France after surviving the Nazi occupation during the Second World War.  Five years after they had moved, Anna left, ‘taking the typewriter and their children.  They never met again’.

In her author’s note, Mouillot tells us that this ‘is a true story, but it is a work of memory, not a work of history’.  The whole has been based, for the most part, upon letters, diaries, and conversations had with her grandparents, as well as her own memories of them.  Mouillot is descended from a family of Holocaust survivors, ‘with a lot of bad memories to cope with’.  These feelings were passed down to her; she tells us: ‘I kept my shoes near the front door, so I could grab them quickly if we had to escape in a hurry, but then I’d lie awake and worry we’d have to use the back door instead’, and ‘the unspoken question that nettled me was not whether such a thing [as losing a house] could happen but how many houses you could lose in a lifetime’.

A Fifty-Year Silence begins in a manner which immediately gives us a feel for Mouillot’s grandparents: ‘When I was born, my grandmother tied a red ribbon around my left wrist to ward off the evil eye.  She knew what was ahead of me and what was behind me, and though she was a great believer in luck and the hazards of fortune, she wasn’t about to take any chances on me’.  She then goes on to say: ‘My grandmother practiced a peculiar and intensive form of self-sufficiency.  She wasn’t a wilderness type; she just knew that in the end, the only person she could truly rely upon was herself’.  Her seeming incompatibility with her stubborn, set-in-his-ways grandfather, is discussed at length. Mouillot believed that her grandparents were ‘more than opposites, or perhaps less; they were like the north poles of two magnets, impossible to push close enough together in my mind to make any kind of comparison, let alone a connection’.

From the first, Mouillot’s narrative is engaging, and she presents her voyage of self- and familial-discovery marvellously.  The flashbacks of her grandparents’ comments, and musings about their early lives have been woven along with her own youth.  She weaves in the tale of how she herself fell in love with La Roche, the decrepit, crumbling house two miles away from the nearest village, and an hour north of Avignon, whilst visiting as a teenager, and how she has now made the region her home.  A Fifty-Year Silence is incredibly interesting, and it has been so lovingly written that it truly is a treat to settle down with.

5

‘The Nine Hundred: The Extraordinary Young Women of the First Official Jewish Transport to Auschwitz’ by Heather Dune Macadam *****

I studied the Second World War and the Holocaust extensively whilst at school and University, and have been lucky enough to visit Holocaust museums and memorials all around the world, from Poland and Hungary to Australia. It is a subject which I keep coming back to, time and again, particularly as more scholarly books and works of memoir are published. As an historian, it is so important to me to learn as much as I can about different periods in history, and about the many causes and triggers which led to a particular situation.

In The Nine Hundred, Heather Dune Macadam has chosen to focus upon a particular instance and group of women whom I knew little about – those who were sent on the first official Jewish transport to the Auschwitz concentration camp. In Poprad, Slovakia, in March 1942, almost one thousand young and unmarried Jewish women, many of them teenagers, boarded a train. They were “asked” to ‘commit to three months of government work service’, and believed that they were going to be working in a factory, before coming back to their families. With a ‘sense of adventure and national pride’ they set off. Only later did they realise what was in store for them, and many had to watch whilst their families were also forced to Auschwitz, and sent straight to the gas chambers. By the end of 1942, two thirds of the women on this first convoy had been murdered, and just a handful survived the war.

The Slovakian government despicably paid 500 Reichsmarks – or about £160 or $200 apiece – for the Nazis to take these young Jewish women away, and use them for slave labour. As news travelled slowly around rural Slovakia at that time, the announcements were staggered, and no immediate warnings could be made before more women were taken away. Macadam writes: ‘All over Slovakia, the same notices were being posted and simultaneously heralded by town criers clanging brass bells or banging drums. The only variable between communities was where the girls should go: firehouse, school, mayor’s office, bus stop. The rest of the news was the same…’.

Relatively little is known about this initial transport, but Macadam has pieced together so many sources, from consulting with historians to the relatives of these first deportees. She has also interviewed as many survivors as she could firsthand. She writes that knowing about these women is ‘profoundly relevant today. These were not resistance fighters or prisoners of war… Sent to almost certain death, the young women were powerless and insignificant not only because they were Jewish – but also because they were female.’

The foreword to the volume has been written by historian Caroline Moorehead, whose book, A Train in Winter, I loved. She comments that in The Nine Hundred, Macadam ‘has managed to re-create not only the backgrounds of the women on the first convoy but also their day-to-day lives – and deaths – during their years in Auschwitz.’

Alongside the wider historical context, which she covers excellently, Macadam has taken the decision to focus upon as many of the individual women in this transport as was possible. This means that what we read as a result is concurrently a shared experience, and a solitary one. In her author’s note, Macadam explains: ‘This book would not be a memoir… It would be about all of them, or as many as I could find information on and fit into this complex history.’ She goes on to write: ‘It is a great honor and privilege to be a part of these women’s histories, their champion and their chronicler.’

I liked the way in which Macadam has structured The Nine Hundred. It is a work of non-fiction, but some of the writing reads more like that of a novel, allowing one to become involved with the individuals immediately. Macadam begins her narrative in the incredibly cold winter of 1942, just before the girls were snatched from their homes. At this time, rumours were beginning to fly around Slovakia’s small towns and villages: ‘Flames of doubt and uncertainty were quenched by reason. If the rumor was true, the most reasonable said, and the government did take girls, they wouldn’t take them far away. And if they did, it would only be for a little while. Only for the spring – when and if spring ever arrived. If, that is, the rumor was true.’ Macadam goes on to recap many of the restrictions and laws made against Jewish people in Slovakia before this point, which ranged from being ‘forbidden to reside on any main street’ in a town, and being banned from having pets, to having to deposit their fur coats with the right-wing Hlinka Guard, and the denial of operations at any hospital.

The Nine Hundred is an invaluable resource, which has a real quality of immediacy about it. It goes without saying that the content of Macadam’s book is shocking and horrific, and I did find some of it very difficult to read. The author demonstrates real strength in setting the scene, and in giving appropriate background information whenever it is needed. One gets the sense, from the very beginning, that Macadam cares deeply about each of these girls, and she handles the portrayal of each expertly. The Nine Hundred is heartbreaking, but learning about these brave women, many of whom were forced to abruptly grow up and face so many horrors, is a powerful and moving privilege.

0

‘Boundless: Adventures in the Northwest Passage’ by Kathleen Winter ****

As is so often the case, I had had my eye on Kathleen Winter’s Boundless: Adventures in the Northwest Passage for an age before I purchased it. I first read Winter years ago, when her novel, Annabel, was selected as the first choice for the in-real-life book club that I was a member of. I got a great deal from it; many others did not. Boundless is certainly a very different book, but for me, it was just as enjoyable, and just as memorable.

In 2010, Winter – who lived in St. John’s, Newfoundland, and now resides in Montreal – took ‘a journey across the legendary Northwest Passage’ in a Russian icebreaker. She travelled from the southwest coast of Greenland to the largest island in Canada, Baffin Island. On her extended trip, on which she was invited at the last minute to make up the journalist contingent, she encountered a great deal of things, many of which were troubling. She saw, firsthand, the effects of climate change on small and isolated communities, and also the difficulties between balancing the traditional cultural elements of Inuit populations with the advances of the modern world.

When she embarked on this journey, Winter had just turned fifty. At the point at which she is invited on the trip by a writer friend, who cannot make it after all, she reflects: ‘I thought of my own British childhood, steeped in stories of sea travel. I thought of Edward Lear’s Jumblies, who went to sea in a sieve. I thought… of the longing and romance with which my father had decided to immigrate to Canada. I thought of all the books I’d read on polar exploration, on white men’s and white women’s attempts to travel the Canadian Far North.’ She goes on: ‘For a writer, loneliness is magnetic. The very names on the map excited me… I knew that to go to these places would activate something inside me that had long lain dreaming.’

People from all walks of life are passengers on the ship. The majority of those on board are men, many of whom sport ‘explorer-type beards’. However, alongside Winter, there is a Canadian Inuk woman, and a Greenlandic-Canadian, both of whom are set upon cultivating interest in their communities. Winter writes that to these two women ‘fell the task of teaching us about the North from the perspectives of Inuit women who have lived there all their lives – women who have come to know its animals, plants, and people, both indigenous and visiting, through long experience.’ I found the portions where she writes about these women quite fascinating.

Whilst much of the ship is rather luxurious, her own accommodation arguably leaves something to be desired: ‘Higher up, through open doors, I had seen passengers’ deluxe cabins with big windows looking out over Baffin Bay. By the time I descended to my own little cabin, there were tiny portholes, and when I pressed my nose to the glass, there lay the sea surface at the level of my rib cage.’ However, she quite wonderfully sees everything as an adventure; she reasons that she will only be sleeping in her little cabin, and will largely be exploring, or talking to others on deck.

I admired the commentary which Winter gives; in it, she captures a great deal. When they first reach Greenland by plane, she comments: ‘Our bus had rounded a corner in the crags of Kangerlussuaq [a small town in the west of the country], and there in the bay was our ship, floating so crisp and blue and white it looked as if someone had ironed and starched it into one of those three-dimensional pop-up picture books that had enchanted me when I was a child.’

The descriptions which Winter gives of her surroundings are highly visceral. She writes, for example: ‘As we sailed into Disko Bay, ice floated in silence, quiet green-greys leading to whites and back to blues. There was no sign of any human, only reflections of ice and sky and northern sea, and the light held a low frequency that lent ice and sky and water a glow both incandescent and restrained.’ Later, she tells us: ‘The fjord acted as an orchestral chamber, magnifying the sounds of these ice monoliths as they crushed and worked. It sounded like a vast construction site. There was a gunshot crack, then a thump and another avalanche; layered under these were the lapping of water, the echoing roar of wind around the moonscape mountains, and other, more distant collisions of ice echoing down the fjord.’

Winter translates the awe which she feels regarding the landscapes around her with a great deal of care, and makes us so aware of the physical landscape. She describes the way in which: ‘We floated by Zodiac to icebergs gathering at the fjord mouth: caves, pillars, monumental and illumined with blue light, and darkness in the deep recesses – so enigmatic and imposing I said nothing for hours.’ Sometimes, in fact, she finds words quite redundant. She comments: ‘I was finding, in the North, that words are a secondary language: first we see images, then we feel heat, cold rock, flesh. We taste air before words.’

The Northwest Passage is a fascinating, and still relatively unexplored, region. Winter comments: ‘It would later be revealed that even our captain’s navigational charts did not tell the complete truth about what lay ahead of us, since much of the Arctic remains uncharted and the land, wind, and ocean themselves are forever in flux’. The original plan for the trip was to follow Roald Amuldsen’s first successful route through the Northwest Passage, but this did not quite go to plan.

The very name of the passage is problematic; it was given the moniker by colonisers, and is known as other things entirely to those who live alongside it. I appreciated the time which Winter gave to discussing this fact. She draws attention to the vast differences between explorers, who see a region briefly and seem to think they then have dominion over it, and those who have called it their home for centuries. Often, in the communities which Winter and the other passengers visit, dogs outnumber humans. Despite this, there is still such a strong sense of history, and of shared experience.

I liked the way in which Winter wrote about her voyage as both physical, and one of self-discovery. She searches, throughout, for her own belonging. As an English transplant to Newfoundland in her youth, she tells another passenger that she feels ‘”sort of at home on the ship, here, between homelands.”‘ She writes with a great deal of insight about selfhood, and the loss of her first home. It is clear, from very early on in the narrative, that this journey had a profound impact upon the author, something which she comes back to throughout.

Boundless is Winter’s first work of non-fiction, and I am really hoping that it isn’t the last. Her prose is excellent, and balances more informative passages with her own musings with a great deal of skill. Winter’s tone is incredibly engaging, and I loved exploring the Northwest Passage through her lens. She is a continually thoughtful guide to the Arctic region. I long to do a journey like this one sometime in the future, but for now, I can only thank Winter for allowing me to take part in her own travels, and for being so open and honest about everything she encountered. Boundless is a thorough, and quite excellent, piece of travel writing, which I read with a great deal of interest from cover to cover.

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‘Strands: A Year of Discoveries on the Beach’ by Jean Sprackland ****

One of my favourite places to be is on the beach, and I have been lucky enough to visit them all over the world; from Australia’s Bondi Beach on a very breezy December day, to hidden turquoise coves in Croatia and Montenegro, and the sand-swept, dune-filled coasts of Northern France and Belgium. Unfortunately, at present, I live in a landlocked English county and, like so many others across the world, was long separated from the beach by numerous lockdowns and travel bans.

One piece of solace which I found during this time was in Jean Sprackland’s first nature book, Strands: A Year of Discoveries on the Beach, which won the Portico Prize in 2012. Here, Sprackland has penned ‘a series of meditations prompted by walking on the wild estuarial beaches of Ainsdale Sands between Blackpool and Liverpool’, which she recorded over a single calendar year. She explores, primarily, ‘what is lost and buried and then discovered… about flotsam and jetsam, about mutability and transformation – about sea-change.’

Strands has been split into corresponding seasons, which is one of my favourite structures in which to present a nature book. I love to see how one place can differ so much from one season to the next; even from one month to the next. This is one of the main elements of focus for Sprackland; she is aware of every small change, and of what to expect as one month passes into the next. For her, this ‘stretch of coast has an entirely different spirit. It’s all about change, shift, ambiguity. It reinvents itself. It has a talent for concealment and revelation. Things turn up here; things go missing.’

In her preface, Sprackland immediately sets out that she has been walking along this particular beach for twenty years. For her, writing Strands is a bittersweet experience, as she is about to leave her home for London, and a new marriage. She knows that this is the last time in which she will be able to travel to Ainsdale Sands so often, and wished to record this process. She writes that over those two decades ‘… our relationship has grown complex and intimate. It has become, as places can, an inner as well as an outer landscape, one I carry around in my head and explore in my imagination even when I’m far from here.’ She goes on to say: ‘The version I carry in my head is endlessly flexible, but of course the external place does not obey me at all. It remains stubbornly unknowable.’

Sprackland is also a poet, and she writes her prose using careful, memorable, and even sometimes sharp, vocabulary choices. She sees her beach with a poet’s eyes. It is, for her, ‘a place of big skies and lonely distances, a shifting palette of greys and blues; a wild, edge-of-the-world place.’ She goes on to say that ‘This characteristic of the beach – its capacity to surprise and mystify – is what brings me back here, day after day, month after month.’

Alongside the usual items which plague coasts all over the world – primarily plastic and litter – there are some surprises in store for Sprackland. In the first chapter, which occurs in spring, for example, she comes across ‘three wrecked ships lying on the surface’ of the sand. These, she has never seen before. She realises that she must have ‘cycled over them, oblivious’ when they had previously been buried under the sand. These boats, she finds out after conversing with a friend, that these ships show themselves for a few weeks at a time before being reburied, sometimes for years at a time. She later says: ‘I’ve often noticed a kind of “rule of recurrence”: I find something unusual – something I’ve never seen here before – and almost immediately I find another the same, and then another. And certain kinds of objects come and go; they’re numerous when I visit one week, and have vanished by the next.’

Sprackland goes on to find so many different things during her wanderings – mermaid’s purses, which hold the eggs of sharks, skates, and rays; samphire; ‘a bicycle saddle, a knitting needle, a large bleached knuckle bone, a light bulb’; a swarm of ladybirds; even a ‘blister pack of Prozac’, and a message in a bottle. She describes the way in which the ‘detritus of our lives is washed, softened and given back to us cleansed of its dirt and shame. That’s the work of the sea. It comes in faithfully, on schedule, like an old-time religion, and washes away our sins.’ She also nods to the myriad places in which these items she finds start their journey, ‘from so many different sources and directions: from the hands of walkers and picnickers; from the air; from underneath the sand; and of course from the sea. In an age where science has unlocked so many of Earth’s secrets, and almost the entire planet has been mapped and imaged, our oceans and shores remain relatively unexplored. Each new discovery presents questions and mysteries.’

Alongside the physical landscape of her particular beach, Sprackland has written about the crushing changes which climate change is already bringing to the species which are found just off the coast. She also wishes to raise an awareness of just how much one single person can see them changing. She urges: ‘Those of us with beaches to walk on should be learning the language of the things we find there. We should be reading the signs.’ She writes with a great deal of insight, stating: ‘If in the course of opening our eyes to environmental realities we have lost some of our simple pleasures and amazements, we have replaced them with passionate collective attachments to a few powerful symbols of what is previous and threatened: the polar bear, the tiger, the wildflower meadow, and so on. Our losses are not so often focused on the mucous, the smelly and the commonplace.’

I thoroughly enjoyed Sprackland’s second nature book, These Silent Mansions: A Life in Graveyards; indeed, I think about it often. Here, too, there is so much to consider, and to appreciate. Sprackland’s prose is often quite profound; she makes one stop and think throughout, with sentences such as the following: ‘It’s dizzying, the realisation that we spend our lives moving precariously on the outer skin of the planet, and that same skin contains all the stuff of history.’ She is a considerate and quite meditative author. Her prose is beautiful and attentive; there is a haunting appeal to it. As with These Silent Mansions, Strands is highly detailed, and so well researched; there is also such a visceral sense of place within it.

I love the way in which Sprackland blends her own observations with scientific facts, and the way in which she includes quotes from other writers, particularly poets. Strands is relatively introspective, and deals with such a comparatively small stretch of coastline, but Sprackland manages to discuss so much within its pages. It is an unusual nature book in its focus, and one which I would highly recommend.

If you are interested, you can read my review of Sprackland’s These Silent Mansions here.